Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778/2017: Renewing Our Holy Wholeness (And the Role of Bagels in Jewish Spiritual Life)
By Rabbi David
Shanah tovah. Welcome to 5778 and to renewing our holy journey together as we “return to the land of our souls.”
For 3,000 years, our people have craved shalom – peace within, peace between, peace for all. Judaism is about shalom – seeking shalom and making shalom. Rosh Hashanah renews this call, to repair what’s broken; heal what we hurt; return to our souls and each other, come clean, and purify ourselves for the new year.
Shalom, often translated as “peace,” is far more than peace: its Hebrew root is shalem (wholeness). Peace and wholeness are linked: what’s at peace is whole in itself. The opposite is strife and broken, the apparent loss of wholeness. Renewing peace means becoming more whole. That’s this season’s calling for all of us.
Shalom (peace) and shleimut (wholeness) are our holiday themes. Together we’ll renew our journey to become more whole. We’ll ask, “What disturbs our peace? How do we stray from being whole? What’s divided inside us or between us that can we repair? How can the flow we call holy help renew the whole of our lives?”
My own journey didn’t start easily. I begin sermons at Tisha b’Av, 50 days ago. I began to write about the spirituality of shalom and what gets in its way. But each time I wrote, a cataclysm rocked the world. First Nazis stormed Charlottesville brandishing flaming torches. Then Hurricane Harvey turned the Gulf Coast into a 19 trillion gallon bathtub. Then countless news stories reported people feeling unwelcome in this country due to race, religion, whom they love or where they were born. Then fires burned Oregon’s forests. Then North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb. Then an earthquake rocked Mexico. Then a hacker broke into Equifax computers and stole the personal data of 160 million Americans. Then Hurricane Irma ravaged the Caribbean and Florida. And this week alone, North Korea launched another missile, another earthquake killed hundreds in Mexico, and another hurricane ravaged the Caribbean.
Every wave of news stopped me in my tracks. I’d regain some balance and start writing again, until the next wave hit. I felt so beleaguered that I began to despair of having any sermons at all.
I was experiencing what poet Sophie Black said about writing poetry: “Whatever gets in the way of the work is the work.” What got in my way – waves of the world rocking what I thought was my peace – was my lesson to re-learn about what real peace and wholeness are. I was seeking them in all the wrong places.
Sophie Black’s truth is the life we all lead. We all seek shalom and shleimut, peace and wholeness, but often what we most want is what feels good. What seems to get in our way isn’t a nuisance but our real spiritual curriculum, and if we treat it that way, we can grow toward a shalom far more resilient than just what feels good. Real spirituality is more than joyful bliss: it serves our actual lives, storms and all.
Spiritually here’s why – and it infuses our creed, who we are and what we do in the world. It touches our whole sense of reality, the nature of nature itself, and thus also shapes the meaning of this Rosh Hashanah evening we call Yom Harat Olam, birthday of the world, the creation we date to Rosh Hashanah, our cosmic reboot.
Earlier we said Shema Yisrael (“Hear, Israel-Godwrestlers”), Adonai Eloheinu (“the Infinite we call our God”), Adonai Echad (“is One,” unity of all). All. All means all. By definition, the All we call the One has no outside: nothing beyond. Of Torah we say v’chol netivoteha shalom: “all her ways are shalom.” Talmud even offers that shalom is a mystical name for the Holy One (B.T. Shabbat 10b) – the wholeness of our lives, in all their complexity.
Our calling is to seek wholeness precisely in the totality of our lives, however they unfold. Theologically it’s a challenge: it means that even Charlottesville, hurricanes, political storms, forest fires, armies, earthquakes, climate change and illness must have in them some portal to the shalom and shleimut we call the One and All.
Easy to say, hard to live. Life is messy and our questions are big: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” “Why would a loving God allow killer hurricanes?” Some so despair of answers that they avoid these questions: even if they have total faith, their spirituality is fragile. What happens if storm winds blow out their shalom? Others vindicate God by limiting God – to them, God is only what feels good and everything else isn’t God. They split God from the world, taking the “all” out of the Almighty. They seek a spirituality that comforts the afflicted, but what if spirituality afflicts our comfort? They pull back from fully engaging a world that has both hate and love, hurricanes and beautiful sunsets.
All of this is normal: we all do it. Evolution wires us to avoid pain, so naturally we incline to avoid what hurts and seek what feels good. When we do it to extreme, it becomes what Robert Masters calls “spiritual bypassing,” spirituality that gets in the way of what’s most important. Spiritual bypassing uses religion and spirituality as feel-good crutches that don’t really challenge us or help us evolve.
But sometimes real life is challenging, so real spirituality also must be challenging sometimes. Teshuvah – “return[ing] again to the land of our souls” – must mean getting real about what gets in the way of being our best selves, and the shalom and shleimut linked to our best selves. Yes, comfort is good and blissful joy is great – and teshuvah asks more. What gets in the way of the work is the work.
By now, some of you might feel bummed. Maybe you came to this oasis of joyful Judaism to feel uplifted and inspired. Maybe you want to escape storms of mother nature and human nature raging outside. Maybe you long to escape storms of mind and heart raging inside. That’s a great reason to be here – and, we also know that storm winds are going to blow again and again.
But I have good news. If you’re a regular here, you’ve seen real spirituality open hearts wider than maybe we thought possible. We’ve seen real spirituality harness the winds of our inner storms, helping us become inwardly strong – not like rocks too hard to feel or too brittle to withstand pressure. We’ve seen souls heal in ways so awesome that the only word I know for it is “miracle.”
Our journey to real shalom and shleimut asks strength and courage to call spiritual bypassing what it is. In the words of my teachers, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l and Rodger Kamenetz, it means becoming more transparent to ourselves. It’s noticing what we don’t want to notice about ourselves, and the real reasons why. It’s a spirituality more whole than what feels good now, because what feels good can get blown away, flooded, sickened or deported. That’s why the prophets railed about a spirituality that goes about life without going deep, getting real and using our hands to help heal the world. Yes, it can hurt to face the storms, But there’s no real way out except through: whatever gets in the way of the work is the work.
We need a spirituality whole enough for our whole lives, not too partial or easy, because life isn’t partial or easy. We need a theology that can endure storms, because we live amidst storms. We need a theology that’s whole and holy, with peace in its heart that we can feel, for we are whole and holy, with hearts that feel.
What is this theology? How can we make our spiritual lives more open to what’s whole and also what fees broken? Ladies and gentlemen, holy friends, I give you the holy bagel.
Hey, what’s more Jewish than a bagel and good shmear? Whatever our beliefs, our kishkes have an ancestral sense of things, and what feels more Jewish than feeding each other? (As the joke goes, “Eat something: I’m hungry.”) Joking aside, that’s tikkun olam, repairing the world. Yes, Jewish tradition prizes prayer and ideas and learning, but mainly as they impel us to act. That’s why people who went to storm-ravaged Houston and Florida to feed the hungry after the hurricanes have a special place in my heart.
Our words matter, but mainly as they impel us to act however we can, to become better than we were, to help the world be better.
The link we live between our words and our deeds is the heart of this moment – not spiritual bypassing but spiritual becoming. In the days ahead, we’ll confess times we weren’t our best and times we missed the mark, not because confession is magic but so our words can impel us to be better and do better. The power of words is part of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Harat Olam, the world’s birthday, when God created with words: “Let there be,” and there was. We, all of us, the world, are holy speech become form. Baruch she’amar v’hayah ha-olam / Blessed is the One whose speech is the world.
What spiritual form is this world, God’s speech made alive? What shape is this world? Once again, ladies and gentlemen, holy friends, I give you the holy bagel.
How is creation like a bagel? The bagel shape is Judaism’s mystical answer for how God can be the “all” of the Almighty and also gift humanity free will; how a God of love can coexist in a world of hate, storms, floods, wars, illness and suffering.
Mystics call it tzimtzum, “self-contraction.” The Infinite we call God, the “all” in Almighty, couldn’t coexist with a humanity free will without self-limiting. Like a parent makes space for a child to grow up, learn and become, so too for us. Mystics teach that God, the ultimate shalom and shleimut, self-contracted to make room for us. That’s how we can exist, and why we sometimes feel distant from the holy. The Almighty surrounds us and fills us, and only a world of tzimtzum can have natural laws and free will.
Hence the bagel shape: we live in the space within, the hole of the bagel that also is holy – not lacking in spirit but rather a holiness downshifted so we humans can live. Here in the middle, there are storms and stunning sunsets, illness and health, peace and war, dualities of all kinds. Our free will – our ability to choose, act, help, grow, heal and become – is possible only here in the middle.
We live in the middle of the bagel – and perhaps it’s sacred geometry that a bagel looks like a hurricane, an outside with an open center. That’s where we live. Any other life is spiritual bypassing. Our question is how we choose to live in the middle.
The strongest hurricanes have the calmest eye: winds stops and there is peace, for awhile. Life’s storms, all that upends our peace and wholeness, focus us on what’s truly important, and that is our shalom. Whatever gets in the way of the work is the work.
Maybe that’s why Job – the suffering prophet who asked God why – is the one who said oseh shalom bim’romav / [God] makes shalom (Job 25:2), and why va’ya’an Adonai min has’arah / God answered Job from the storm (Job 38:1). It was precisely amidst the storm that Job finally could see what was most holy.
As for Job, so for us. We don’t want to suffer, but our lives –our middle of the bagel, our free will, our inner defenses, storms and all – are such that often our stiff-necked lives need disruptions before we will evolve. Theologian Richard Rohr put it this way in his book, Falling Upward:
“Human consciousness does not emerge at any depth except through struggling with our shadow” – the storms within, and storms outside. “It is in facing our conflicts, criticisms and contradictions that we grow. It is in the struggle with our shadow self, with failure, or with wounding that we break into higher levels of consciousness. People who learn to expose, name and still thrive inside [them] are people I would call prophets.”
This moment calls us to be like prophets, to find the strength to name what gets in the way of our peace, of being most whole and holy – and then we act. Storms raging outside and inside are clarion calls for us to act, and our world needs us to act as never before – to fix what’s broken, seek forgiveness and give it, feed the hungry, heal the wounded, douse the flames, calm the hate, cool the planet and rebuild from the rubble. In a world of holy tzimtzum, in the middle of the bagel, this work isn’t for God alone: it’s for us.
Someone distraught by the pain and brokenness of the world broke down. He beat his fists into the dirt. Like Job, he yelled at God, “Look at this mess! Look at the pain and suffering of this world of Yours. God, why don’t You do something?”
And God spoke from the whirlwind saying, “I did. I sent you.”
This is how we renew our holy journey toward wholeness – not by walling ourselves off from storms, but by penetrating their central eye and getting to work on ourselves and the world. That’s what Rosh Hashanah calls us to do. That’s how we can renew our lives and the world. Like Job before us, if we’re willing to admit in our core that we live in the whirlwind – if we can be present to what is, and get really real with ourselves and each other – then we can hear the “still, small voice” of shalom calling us together from the whirlwind. Every storm calls for responders. We’re the responders.
May the Holy One bless us and all our loved ones with response – with inspiration, with courage to face the storms, with strength to seek a resilient shalom and shleimut that can weather even the fiercest storm – for all of us, for our community, for our nation, and for a world just waiting for us to answer the call. In our words from Psalm 29:
May we have strength